By Paul Ruggiero
CTS Triathlon Coach
Whoa. How did you get here? It’s still dark, the sun is just peeking over the lake, and you’re standing here in neoprene with hundreds of your closest friends listening to the National Anthem. It’s the pre dawn start of your first triathlon. So you read our article about the 8 week training plan for your first race and executed the plan. Awesome. And you checked out the piece we wrote about how to handle transition area. But now it’s race day! And the gun is going to go off as soon as the singer polishes off “…and The Home of the Brave” part, but what the hell do you do now?!
Funny you should ask. Here are a few things to make your first triathlon race awesome.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Start your day off right and get there early! Race morning goes really, really fast. One minute you have plenty of time to get to the event, and the next minute the parking lot you wanted to park in is full and you’re cruising around a neighborhood looking for street parking with 100 other people who also didn’t leave early enough. Forget worms, the early bird gets the best parking. Take a look at this piece I wrote about transition do’s and don’ts for more help. No one likes a grumpy athlete, and showing up late is no way to start your day. Be responsible. Be early.
Trust Your Training
Back to the person waiting at the edge of the water for the National Anthem to end. Everyone around you is so ready to go. Stoic. Staring forward in their black wet suits, Goggles perfectly adjusted. Calm, cool and collected. They are not even nervous, and you’re dying inside! Nope.
Everyone at the swim start is just as freaked out as you are. The pre-swim nerves are the worst. Know that walking to the water’s edge. Take deep breaths, shake your hands out, and be present. Remember, you only get to feel these kinds of nerves and adrenaline rushes a few times in our adult lives, (in fact, we do our best to stay out of situations that make us feel uncomfortable) so you might as well embrace it. Once the gun goes off, rely on your training and lay it down and get to work. Training makes difficult tasks routine, so when the gun goes off, trust in your preparation and don’t overthink it. And, remember – you only get one first one. Soak it in.
Bonus Tip: Practice swimming with your head out of water a few times in the weeks leading up to race day. Often times in the scrum of the swim start, there are many bodies in the way preventing you from going into a full swim stroke. So practicing the head out of water, Tarzan or water polo stroke (I’ve heard it called a million things) can help you be ready for it.
To execute – simply look down the length of the pool and start to swim, keeping your head out of the water. Try not to turn your head from side to side when you swim on this one. Pick a fixed spot at the other end of the pool, stare at it and swim towards it. Yes, this is hard. Yes, this will rapidly tire you out and increase your breathing rate will increase. Once you do 25 yards with head out of water, immediately do a 25-yard regular swim. This will help you adapt to the challenge that can be the first part of your race day.
Get Nutrition During the Bike
The bike leg is the best spot to consume calories while racing. You spend the greatest portion of the race on the bike, and it is easiest to eat and digest food and fluids on the bike. A good rule of thumb for shorter races is a bottle of Fluid Hydration an hour. Fluid has everything you need in a bottle to get your through a quick sprint distance bike leg, so work on getting a full bottle down while racing.
Think about it: let’s say 30 minutes before the swim you wandered down to the water for warm up and to get a place at the start. Then you raced for 15-45 minutes (depending on your speed and swim distance) and now you’ve been burning calories for more than an hour without eating anything. Consuming food while trying to run fast can be challenging, so get the bottle down on the bike. It will provide the fluid and calories needed with a lower risk of gastrointestinal distress than eating on the run.
Manage Your Energy
On the tail of Tiger’s Historic Masters win (see what I did there?), I’ll drop an old golf saying: Drive for show, putt for dough. To segue that gem to back to triathlon, think of the bike ride as “the show” and the run as “the dough.” Everyone wants to go fast and look awesome on the bike. Speed on the bike is important, and the bike leg is the longest leg of your race, so you want to go the fastest there to be done with it. However, the energy you expend on the bike can cost you on the run. Races are won and PR’s are set on the run.
You don’t necessarily need to have a fast run, but you need a smart run. Meaning, if you modulated your power and energy expenditure on the bike, you will still have energy in the tank when it’s time to go for the run.
So, after managing energy on the bike, you should just run like The Flash! Right? Not quite. The better strategy is to come off a well-paced bike ride and run SLOW for a while. A successful triathlon run should be in the negative split variety. Meaning, you got FASTER each mile, not SLOWER.
The only way to get faster over the course of a run is to come off the bike slow. Let people blaze by you in the first mile. Note their numbers as they go by, and tell yourself, “I’ll see you when you’re walking in about a mile.” Build speed as your run progresses. Break the run into chunks. The longer the run, the bigger the chunks, but break it apart.
For a practical example, we’re here to talk about first time triathlons, so let’s use 5 kilometers (3.1 miles).
- Mile 0 to 1 – nice and light. Come off the bike, high five your family and EASE GRACEFULLY out of transition. If you have a running background maybe you can have some urgency, but keep a lid on it.
- Mile 1 to 2 – Your bread and butter mile. Settle into a “all day pace”. Something you think you can hold forever. Not too hard, not too soft, but right in the middle.
- Mile 2 to 3 – GO TIME. If you paced well to this point, you can start flying now. Pass a bunch of those people who ran by you earlier. Go get ’em! All in from mile 2 to 3.
Practice Your Finish Line Pose
Every work out, no matter how big or small, bad or good, deserves to be celebrated. You worked hard to get to this race, so know what epic pose you’re throwing down when you cross the line before you get there. There won’t be another first time triathlon, so get this right. Practice it every time you complete a work out. You deserve to. Give yourself credit for the fact you signed up for a race and executed the plan.
Whether training myself and working the training camps we do at our Santa Ynez Center, I’m on the bike for a living. Every time I arrive home or back to the training center, be it from a personal training ride or 100-mile Tour of California Camp smashfest, I do a small, hidden fist pump as I finish the ride. It happens at the corner of my street as I turn past the last houses to home. Or right at the Burger Barn restaurant in Santa Ynez. It’s my private moment of celebration and reflection. It keeps me present and grounded and grateful for my ability to do something athletic. So, when you cross that finish line, it’s not the race you’re celebrating, it’s all those little steps along the way that got you there. Celebrate all the steps.